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The Streets Of Rome, How COVID Has Deepened An Eternal Wealth Divide

The pandemic has exposed longstanding inequalities and brought more people into a cycle of hunger and precariousness,

photo of a white high-rise apartment building

A building in Rome's Tor Bella Monaca suburb

Francesca Mannocchi

ROME — One evening Alessia answered the intercom in her apartment. It was a man shouting at her to give him 1,000 euros, or he would come up to her apartment with a crowbar and beat her and her son. The man buzzed again: one more day, he told her, but only one day. When he left, Alessia started packing — but it was hardly the first time.


Six months earlier her parents had kicked her out of the house. She'd lived with them in Corviale, on the southwest outskirts of Rome, with her three children Denise, 11, Christian, 14, and the oldest, Daniel, 16. Alessia, 35, has no car and no home, and works in a supermarket in Trullo, 11 hours a day for 1,300 euros a month.

No savings, no rent

When her mother and father kicked her out of the house, she took her children to her sister's house and started sleeping on chairs in the emergency room at San Camillo Hospital in Rome. There were no alternatives. Alessia has a job, sure, but no savings. She tried to contact numbers on private rental ads to find a place to rent, but without savings she couldn't pay the deposit, and without a deposit no one would rent her a house.

So in the morning Alessia would knock on a friend's door to take a shower, then she would go to work, and in the evening she would get on a bus to go back to the hospital hallway. It went on like this for a week, until an acquaintance told her: "If you need a house, I'll help you. Give me 2,000 euros and I'll find you a place to sleep."

Rome is a city in which the place where you are born and grow up write your destiny

The place to sleep was a gallery of the "serpentone" (big snake, in Italian), the building of 1,260 apartments, divided in six lots, each made up of nine floors, 900 meters of concrete designed and built in Corviale in the 1970s by architect Mario Fiorentino, who wanted to turn it into a living example of socialist utopia.

Eight floors of apartments and one, the fourth of each lot, conceived to host meeting places and services, a project that quickly faded away, because since the beginning of the 1980s, all the common spaces have been occupied by illegal paying tenants: 150, 300 or even 500 euros per month for a shared bathroom, a small room and a kitchenette.

In order to have a place in the gallery on the fourth floor, Alessia had to pay 2,000 euros to the squatting racket. That was the voice who'd come hunting for her that night, on the intercom.

"The neighborhood you're born in determines who you are"

Alessia's youngest child will start middle school next year, the second-born child studies computer science at the technical institute, the older one already works as an electrician. At 16, his school life is already over. After all, Alessia says, "it's not that here there are many alternatives."

Salvatore Monni, associate professor at the Department of Economics of the University of Roma Tre, has seen many similar situations. "That's how it is," he says. "In Rome, the neighborhood you're born in determines who you are." Together with Keti Lelo and Federico Tomassi, he has written Le Sette Rome (The Seven Romes), a book that describes the inequalities of the Italian capital in 29 maps.

More than an essay, it shows the social geography of how the city has changed, of how deeply the inequalities that run through it have crystallized. It is a text that explains lives like Alessia's, reading and explaining numbers, such as those recently published by the Italian Ministry of Economy and Finance, related to the 2019 tax returns.

The real emergency is in terms of opportunities.

In Parioli, a wealthy area of Rome, the average annual income is 68,000 euros, compared to 18,000 euros in the neighborhoods of Tor Cervara and Tor Bella Monaca. That's a ratio between the richest and poorest areas of nearly 4 to 1.

Looking at the data on education, the ratio grows to become 11 to 1. In Parioli, 42% of the population has a college degree, in San Basilio only 3%. "This shows that differences in income are not enough to explain the existence of what we described in the book as areas of hardship," says Monni. "The real emergency is in terms of opportunities, that is, in Rome, being born in one neighborhood or another means having more or less opportunity to be educated, consequently to be employed, consequently to be exposed to illegal activities. It means that today Rome is a city in which the place where you are born and grow up write your destiny."

Street art work in Corviale

Matteo Nardone/Pacific Press/ZUMA

The faces of economic vulnerability

If you ask yourself what economic vulnerability looks like, you can find an answer by walking along the streets of Rome's Magliana neighborhood. Poverty has the face of Cinzia, short blond hair, cut by her son, a barber, because she no longer has money to do anything. She had little before, but the pandemic emptied all her savings. And so Cinzia, once a week, waits for her package of food aid in front of the headquarters of the association Vivere la Gioia (Living Joy).

"It's not fair," she says, leaning a hand on the door and one on the walker that supports her. "I'm disabled, I don't have any food and nobody helps me. They think about helping people with bonuses to go on vacation. But here there are people who are starving." In Cinzia's box there is a half-kilo package of pasta, cookies, rice, canned meat, a large can of peeled tomatoes, long-conservation milk and tuna. It's enough for her and then she gives something to her son.

Every now and then at Vivere la Gioia, there are also fresh fruit and vegetables, depending on the generosity of the donors, be they individuals or local supermarkets. "Last year we were helping 100 families every 15 days, in 12 months they have more than doubled to the point that today we have reached almost 400 families," says Fosco Ieva, president of the association.

Overcoming the shame of asking for food

Not everyone wants to talk, not everyone wants to stand in line with others. There are those who arrive at the end of the distribution, too mortified at the idea that a neighbor or local shopkeeper might see them asking for help. Angela is 44, has two children and a one-year-old grandson, and has been taking the food package from Fosco since March of last year. She was working illegally at a bar, but when the lockdown began she was out of work and without benefits. One morning she opened the pantry and all that was left inside was a package of pasta, a box of cookies and powdered milk for her grandson.

An acquaintance told her to be strong and go knock on Fosco's door. "I was so ashamed," she says, before repeating a phrase that many who receive food aid utter: only those who steal should be ashamed.

Those who suffer the most are the elderly who live alone, and children

It's a way to buck up, to push away the modesty, the shame of asking for food. Because if there is a taboo still to be broken, it is the taboo of poverty that leads to hunger. Angela now lives on 350 euros a month, the small disability pension she is entitled to. If you ask her how she does it, she only says: "I get by with what happens, but nothing happens."

She is not angry, nor resentful, nor sad. But she is wise. "If you lose heart, you're done," then she smiles, hugs Fosco, takes her box and walks home.

In Corviale, architect Mario Fiorentino designed and built the "serpentone," a concrete building of 1,260 apartments

Henrik Schulte

Poverty in Rome is structural and pervasive

The pandemic has plunged millions of families like Angela's into a state of destitution across Italy; when the schools and therefore the canteens closed during the lockdowns, millions of parents knocked on the doors of Caritas, the Catholic charitable organization, to ask for food to feed their children.

"Poverty today in Rome is structural and pervasive, like an octopus," says don Benoni Ambarus. He was a parish priest in Rome's northern suburbs for years, then became director of the Rome branch of Caritas, and today is auxiliary bishop with the delegation to Charity.

"The segment of the population that two years ago the Caritas report had defined as 'the tightrope walkers of poverty' is no longer there. The tightrope has broken, the acrobats have all collapsed," says Don Ambarus.

With the end of COVID, poverty will not end

In Rome last year the municipality received 160,000 requests for shopping vouchers, while lay associations and Caritas gave constant support to another 40,000 people. It means that more than 200,000 inhabitants asked for help to eat, that is about 7-8% of the resident population.

"Let's keep going"

Those who suffer the most are the elderly who live alone, and children. "School kids in affluent neighborhoods call public transportation 'spostapoveri' (poor people movers)," says Don Ambaru. "The social inequalities that have been running through Rome for years are creating urban classism."

The maps drawn by Monni, Lelo and Tomassi show how the pandemic has simply helped bring to light and amplify longstanding social divides. "With the end of COVID, poverty will not end," Monni says. "The wealth gap widens within the parts of the city that don't talk to each other, don't want to see each other and are getting further and further apart."

Alfredo is the last one this afternoon to pick up the food package from Vivere la Gioia. He is 60 years old, used to work as a welder, and now that he is unemployed is trying to make do. "It's seven years before I'm due for retirement, and in the meantime I have to eat." He has two sons, one unemployed, one a day laborer.

Alfredo tells his story with a gentle modesty, adding in Roman dialect: "Annamo avanti" (Let's keep going). But then, his mood seems to darken, and says as he walks away: "It's not fair: why do you get to eat and I don't? Am I not the same as you?"


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